PUNTA BAJA, Almeria, Spain. October 3rd, 2021. PICTURED: Sunrise over the volcanic sea cliffs and inlets of Cabo de Gata Natural Park, in Almeria Province of Andalusia. Photo credit: Andy Corbley ©.
Story at a glance…
Almeria in Southern Spain is a Mecca for eco and cultural travel.
Cabo de Gata is filled with beaches, beautiful towns, and other surprises.
The only true desert in all of Europe, and the city of Almeria, are also reviewed here.
Cabo de Gata, sunny beaches, hiking in the Tabernas, there’s adventure around every corner in the southeast of Spain, it just takes someone to look beyond the iconic cities of Andalusia to plan a weekend or more in sunny, quaint, Almeria.
Compared to Seville, Cordoba, or Granada, Almeria may seem like a stopover town, but there are enough things to do nearby to give it top billing in any itinerary of Andalusia.
Andalusia is the hot, dry south region of Spain, the historic seat of many of its Arab-speaking imperial courts, and the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain. It’s the hottest area in Europe, and the site of her only true desert, as well as plenty of gorgeous beaches.
Near to Almeria one can find Cabo de Gata Natural Park, an area of largely preserved volcanic coastline, salt marsh, and hills of exquisite beauty. In September and October, this area has the double benefit of warm days, warm sea, and largely empty beaches, four or five of which are excellent.
The locals are warm and inviting, and fresh seafood can be found practically anywhere. Artisanal crafts have flourished since Maghreb times, and hand-made rugs, baskets, and pottery can add a touch of Spain’s color and warmth to even the drabbest home.
Three days in Almeria — Cabo de Gata, City, Interior
One of those perfect travel destinations for a weekend getaway or an extended ramble, a trip to Almeria can be divided into the city, the interior landscape, and Cabo de Gata, the latter of which also plays host to most of the nicest villages in the area such as San Jose, Nijar, and Isleta del Muro.
Arriving in Almeria is perfectly doable by way of Malaga airport, especially if one has plans to rent a car (which should be highly considered). There is an airport servicing Almeria, but tickets will likely cost far more.
A half-day to visit the city is likely enough, as more can be seen after or before dinner time, but the Alcazabar, an imperious Moorish fortress seen from anywhere above the old city, is free to visit and definitely worth a walk through if only for the views of the city down below its immaculately-restored walls. Parking is free on the streets at the base of the walls.
Other sites include the old plaza, particularly beautiful at night, and the strand along the beach near the harbor. Sandy-floored tapas bars and fresh seafood restaurants serve as the eateries there. If one doesn’t feel like driving 30-40 minutes, the beaches on Almeria are just fine for swimming and sunbathing.
It bears mentioning that Almeria has the single-largest metropolitan population of Muslims in the country, and there are several Arab restaurants, tea houses, and in particular one Moroccan eatery with rooftop seating that serves exquisite food like a Moroccan salad made of eggplants, tomato and coriander, “Bastela” which is a roast chicken-stuffed filo dough pastry topped with cinnamon, dishes of couscous and vegetables cooked in traditional ceramic crockery, and Moroccan tea.
Cabo de Gata — Sunrise and Punta Baja
Settled within a chain of extinct volcanoes, Gabo de Gata is a unique place of natural beauty. Both a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Convention Protected Wetlands Area, it needs at the minimum a pre-dawn to sundown day to experience everything.
Arriving early to watch the sunrise is easier as the sun rises later in the morning in September and October, when there are also fewer people on the beaches and the daytime temperatures are not unbearable. In early October the sun rises at about 8:06 AM, and with the sea often covered in clouds in the early morning, the breaking dawn takes on a magical aspect as it forces its way through them.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE A GREAT SUNRISE: Depart your hotel towards the Faro (lighthouse) de Cabo de Gata. As you come down towards the sea and the lighthouse, a semi-proper street called the ALP-822 will stick out to the left, take it. Drive along until you find parking on a trail head on left-hand side of the road about here.
Here you can watch the sunrise in a spectacular setting amid rocky pinnacles jutting out of the sea, and small secluded beaches like Cala Arena, Cala Carmen, Cala Don Miguel, and Cala Sirenas.
Further down the road, one will find a parking lot for the “Torre de la Vela Blanca” which is a simple 1 kilometer paved road going up the side of an extinct volcano. At the top, views of both sides of the park are stunning. Although one could drive up the path, the pass at the top is at the time of writing closed.
IF YOU LIKE HIKING: It’s possible to simply continue on this trail and pass over to the other side of the park, in which case you’d be walking down to most of the other beaches, including the most famous ones like Playa de Monsul, Las Negras, and Playa del Barronal.
Cabo de Gata – San Jose, Beaches, and Pueblos
Since the road is closed, one must drive around the northern edge of the park to get to the next area. On the way one will pass through several lovely little desert burghs, or “Pueblos”.
If one arrives in San Jose, they can drive to the parking lots for two of the finest beaches in the area, Playa de Los Genoveses, and Playa del Monsul, which will both be down the same road that goes up the Torre de la Vela Blanca.
Passing north if either beach is unsuitable, look for La Isleta del Moro, a quaint fishing village where there’s a nice beach and an exceptional restaurant called “La Ola” which is closed on Sundays. At Isleta it’s also possible to go scuba diving if one were so inclined.
IF YOU ARE ARRIVING FROM THE NORTH: It is possible someone would be approaching the park from the north, in which case there are two other beaches that take priority in that area. Playa de Los Muertos, where sand is replaced with small, smooth colored stones, is in the far northern part of the park, as well as “Las Negras,” both of which are exceptional, and quite empty in September—October.
IF YOU LIKE HIKING: The northern part is where a lot of the hiking trails are, including a circuit around an extinct volcanic caldera. Driving to La Isleta del Moro, there is a clear road sign for the trailhead. Other trails exist, but may not be as well marked.
IF YOU LIKE ART: The town of Rodalquilar is a haven for local artists, and several art galleries are there showing off paintings, ceramics, and photography. If a 30 kilometer detour is acceptable, the town of Nijar is beautiful, perfect for walking in, and is renowned for its ceramics and other artisanal products like rugs, baskets, and other woven goods.
The site of the only true desert in all of Europe, it has been used for decades as a principal filming location for European and American films and television shows, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones, and a variety of spaghetti westerns.
It’s not the easiest nature reserve to traverse, but being that it’s a desert, one of the easiest ways to get around is simply to walk down a wash, or dry riverbed. These act like natural roads in the desert, and pass through canyons, oases, geological features, and offer excellent tastes of the landscape.
WHERE TO START: Arriving from Almeria, look for the Mini Hollywood theme park and leave your car in the small gravel lot on the other side of the guardrail directly across the road from the theme park. From here, there’s a canyon to the right that has a footpath down, which will lead to established hiking routes into a series of washes and arroyos for the ultimate desert experience.
You can also cross the road towards Mini Hollywood, and look to the right for a trailhead that will lead down into a canyon which, if one follows it long enough, will lead them to an oasis that was the filming location for a scene in the famous Lawrence of Arabia.
In the early morning, birds and insects will be awake and feeding while the heat of the day is not so strong. The same goes for mammals, of which there are few, but during the day there won’t seem to be much animal life. Keep your eye out for abandoned or broken down film sets, they litter the landscape, but blend in very well.
IF YOU LIKE WESTERN FILMS: There are several intact filming sets from spaghetti westerns that can be found in and around the Tabernas, as well as the Wild-West themed park Mini Hollywood.
IF YOU LIKE DRIVING: There is a particularly excellent road (AL3103 to the AL102) that passes through the countryside down to the sea from Tabernas. It winds its way, free of speed controls, or many other cars, through olive cultivation, shallow canyons lined with cypress trees, and desert landscapes.
Another exceptional drive is about 20 minutes and goes through the Tabernas Natural Preserve, with stunning desert scenery out of both windows. Arrive in Gergal, where you can find gorgeous castle, and turn around again.
There’s more to do in Almeria Province not written here. In October especially, wind surfing and kite surfing is excellent, as there are so many available beaches which every so often are battered by strong winds. Horse riding in Almeria and Cabo de Gata is very popular, and there are several companies that will set up a trip for beginners and for experienced riders alike.
For adventure in a natural setting, it’s the perfect corner of Spain, and has something for pretty much everybody.